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Claire Fahlman

November 18, 2015


Punishment: Pirates of the Caribbean vs. Pirates in the Caribbean
Although centered on a small island, the British empire soon
grew to become the largest the world has ever seen. From the royal
capital in London, the British expanded their reach to the very corners
of the world. At the peak of the empire, the British had colonies on
every populated continent. Not every colony was profitable, but those
that were were fiercely protected. One such colonial region was the
British West Indies, as the Caribbean colony was called. The British first
arrived in the early sixteenth century, following the expansion of the
Spanish colonial empire.1 With the expansion of multiple empires in the
area came the expansion of maritime crime. In this paper, I will
examine the connections and disconnects between the legal treatment
of pirates in Pirates of the Caribbean, starring Johnny Depp, and the
actual punishment of pirates.
To understand the culture that gave rise to the punishments
convicted pirates received necessitates historical context. Thrown out
of Brazil by the Portuguese colonial authorities, Dutch and Jewish
settlers who had been farming sugarcane immigrated to Barbados and
other British colonies.2 With them, they brought the sugar industry.

1 "British Empire: Caribbean." British Empire: Caribbean. N.p., n.d. Web. 15


Nov. 2015.
2 Watson, Karl. "Slavery and Economy in Barbados." BBC News. BBC, 17 Feb.
2011. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

With the rise of sugar plantations came a need for cheap labor. As
there werent enough free men to work the plantations, slave labor was
imported from west Africa. This caused the Caribbean to become one
of the points of the Britain-West Africa-North America slave triangle.3
The trade of human flesh became just as essential to the Caribbean
economy as sugar.
Understanding the colonial powers present in the Caribbean is
also essential in order to understand the laws surrounding piracy. The
Spanish empire was incredibly wealthy and successful, so any move
made by the Spanish was often followed by the British and French.
With great colonial success came great colonial piracy. Both the British
and the French employed the use of privateers, or pirates robbing on
behalf of their governments.4 These privateers were essentially left to
attack at will as long as a cut of their profits went to their colonial
governments and they didnt attack ships of their own nationalities. As
Spain was the great colonial power of the time, British and French
privateers mainly attacked their ships.5 Once Spains hold as a colonial
power began to wane, however, many privateers turned on their own
governments.6 Thus, the fall of Spain gave rise to the golden age of
the pirates of the Caribbean.

3 Watson, Karl. "Slavery and Economy in Barbados." BBC News. BBC, 17 Feb.
2011. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.
4 Doster, Stephen. A Brief History of Piracy in the Caribbean: 1500-1730.
Jean and Alexander Heard Library, May 2007. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.
5 IBID
6 IBID

I have chosen to analyze the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie,


Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Upon returning
the daughter of the governor of Port Royal to her father after rescuing
her from a near drowning, pirate Captain Jack Sparrow is identified by a
P branded on his wrist, marking him as a pirate. He is immediately
thrown in a dark, inhumane prison filled with pirates to await his death.
Captain Jack escapes, of course. Captain Jack always escapes.7 His
treatment, however, begs the question: is this really what happened to
captured pirates in the colonial British legal system?
Captain Jack is first identified to be a pirate when he shakes
hands with Commodore Norrington and is discovered to have a P
branded on his wrist. In the film, this is explained as the mark of a
pirate caught by the East India Company, giving them a physical brand
to be identified by as a criminal.8 Were pirates really branded? Brands
were used, but only in the cases of pirates not condemned to death.9
Between 1699 and 1707, the English courts branded most released
pirates on the cheek. Before and after, some released pirates were
branded on the thumb or hand, although not always with a P.10 A rise in
piracy may have prompted the British government to take action,
causing the change in policy between 1699 and 1707.11 The only

7 Pirates of the Caribbean--the Curse of the Black Pearl. Dir. Gore Verbinski.
Perf. Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Kiera Knightley. 2003.
8 IBID
9 "Punishment." Punishment. A Pyrate's Life, n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.
10 IBID
11 IBID

pirates who received the brand were pirates who had had their
sentences commuted or had been taken pity on by a judge.12
Therefore, this brand would identify them as decidedly not guilty, not
as a sign of guilt, as it was taken in the case of Captain Jack. Were the
movie to accurately depict that scene, Captain Jack would probably
have been treated poorly by Commodore Norrington for his past acts
piracy but not imprisoned.13
After he is identified to be a pirate, Captain Jack is thrown in
prison to await his execution. The prison is stone, dark, grimy, and
seemingly unguarded except for a dog. This dog is the subject of much
bribery by the imprisoned pirates, who try to tempt it to bring them the
keys to their cell in return for a bone.14 While comical, this scene paints
a terrifying picture of colonial prisons. In reality, pirates were only held
while awaiting their executions.15 Typically, the pirate would be held in
a repurposed storage room. Due to the climate of the Caribbean, the
room would be damp, attracting insects. The floors were covered in
straw to collect dirt as well as human waste.16 Larger jails were just as
filthy as the storage rooms, and were often filled with disease.17
Although both jails and temporary storage room holding cells were
filthy, neither comes close to prison ships. Prison ships were decrepit
12 IBID
13 Pirates of the Caribbean--the Curse of the Black Pearl. Dir. Gore Verbinski.
Perf. Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Kiera Knightley. 2003.
14 "Punishment." Punishment. A Pyrate's Life, n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.
15 IBID
16 IBID
17 IBID

ships anchored either in the middle of a river or just off the coast, far
enough away from land that escape would be near impossible.18 These
ships had outlived their useful lives at sea, and by the time they were
converted to prison ships, they had their portholes patched over by
planks, causing the space below the deck to be completely dark.19
Prisoners were left below the deck until either their trial or their
execution.20 While in the film the prison is guarded by a small dog, in
reality, there were guards stationed by all three types of prison to
prevent escape. For anyone but Captain Jack, escape would be
impossible.
In the film, Captain Jack is automatically sentenced to death for
being a pirate after being thrown in prison without a trial.21 In reality,
however, trials were customary.22 Most pirates, if convicted, were
hanged. It was law that pirates had to be hanged within ten days of
their convictions.23 In those ten days, pirates were visited by clergy and
given a chance to repent for their sins. Their confessions wouldnt keep
them from the gallows, but instead gave the pirates an opportunity to
come to terms with their sins and hopefully avoid hell. These ten days

18 IBID
19 IBID
20 IBID
21 Pirates of the Caribbean--the Curse of the Black Pearl. Dir. Gore Verbinski.
Perf. Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Kiera Knightley. 2003.
22 "Punishment." Punishment. A Pyrate's Life, n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.
23 IBID

also gave the public time to travel to the site of the gallows, as public
hangings were a great source of entertainment.24
While it is obvious that certain aspects of Pirates of the
Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl arent entirely historically
accurate (how many pirate ships are manned by the undead?), the
disparities between the legal treatment of Captain Jack and reality are
more subtle. His brand would hardly have condemned him, though it
may have caused him social grief. His prison is nearly accurate, except
for the fact that he was guarded by a small dog. He would most likely
have had a trial, although it would hardly save him from the gallows.
Indeed, while being an excellent movie and an inspirational love story,
Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl is hardly accurate
when it comes to the British colonial legal treatment of pirates.

Works Cited
"British Empire: Caribbean." British Empire: Caribbean. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Nov.
2015.
Doster, Stephen. A Brief History of Piracy in the Caribbean: 1500-1730. Jean and
Alexander Heard Library, May 2007. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.
Pirates of the Caribbean--the Curse of the Black Pearl. Dir. Gore Verbinski. Perf.
Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Kiera Knightley. 2003.
"Punishment." Punishment. A Pyrate's Life, n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

24 IBID

Watson, Karl. "Slavery and Economy in Barbados." BBC News. BBC, 17 Feb. 2011.
Web. 15 Nov. 2015.